Why there is a need to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act,1897?
Shrinidhi Gattani, Nyayshastram
The entire world is currently facing the wrath of the Coronavirus outbreak. With India being the second largest population in the whole world, it becomes important and necessary for our country to take measures to prevent this pandemic. The vaccine is taking a long time to develop, and as time is the most important essence and at the current situation, the doctors are the only one standing up and against the virus. The Epidemic Disease Act of 1897 is a 123-year-old law which has various limitations regarding the factors leading to tackle the emergence and spread of communicable disease over the years. The Health Ministry passed an ordinance on 22nd April 2020 to amend it after looking at the several incidents or attacks on healthcare workers that includes all the doctors, nurses and paramedics who are fighting day and night to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The violence includes throwing stones on the healthcare workers or hampering their work or place of residence, spitting on them, damages done to the vehicle or clinics of healthcare workers.
About the Act
This is the shortest Act in India and has only four sections. The Act provides the procedure for the prevention of the spread of dangerous epidemic diseases like swine flu, malaria, dengue, cholera and now the coronavirus. It basically gives the necessary guidance to the government regarding such outbreaks. The first section explains the title and extent, and further, the powers have been distributed at 2 levels, i.e., the state government under Section 2 and the Central Government under Section 2(A) of this Act. Also, any person disobeying any regulation or order made under this Act shall be committed under offence punishable under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code.
Reason for Amendment
There are many attacks and incidents that have taken place against the healthcare workers which have obstructed them from doing their duties during the pandemic. These members of the medical community are struggling with insufficient medical preventive kits and facilities. They are selflessly busy saving the lives of millions in need during a national health crisis, and so these acts of violence and harassment against them are totally unacceptable. The cooperation and support from the society are required for them to perform and their duties, but videos going viral on the internet have shown how doctors are becoming a victim of uneducated and educated people in our society. In Indore and Muzaffarpur, a team of doctors visited a locality to collect a sample, and they were attacked by stones by a group of young people of a particular locality and many even got severely injured in the process. Another incident from Gujarat occurred where a woman risking her life at hospital saving lives was harassed by neighbours and asked to leave the house and society as due to her exposure near the patients of COVID-19. There were similar incidents like this which happened in West Bengal and Kerala, where the landlords or societies evacuated the doctors and nurses involved in helping the pandemic without any notice or legal reason. As a result, a lot of healthcare staff have become homeless. Some have resorted to even sleeping on the footpath. A group of people put under quarantine after attending a religious programme in Delhi were seen using vulgar language to the workers and staff. A doctor in Hyderabad was attacked by a younger brother of a patient who died due to the virus. At the end of the day, even for those who are committing violence against doctors, they are the only hope we have without the existence of an affordable vaccine.
Impact of Ordinance
The ordinance has been passed to protect healthcare workers personnel and property, including living/working premises against violence. The amendments make all the acts of violence, cognisable and non-bailable. If anyone is found committing any act against healthcare workers, they will be punished with imprisonment of 3 months to 5 years and with a fine of Rs. 50,000/- to Rs. 2,00,000/-. In case of grievous hurt, the imprisonment shall be of six months to seven years and with a fine of Rs. 1,00,000/- to Rs. 5,00,000/-. If any damages to the living or workplace premises, the offender will be held liable to pay compensation to the victim twice the fair market value. These offences will be investigated within 30 days of a span, and trial completed within a year. The intention to amend the Act was to ensure that during this health crisis, there would not be any tolerance in any form of violence or attacks against healthcare service personnel. Many doctors have already lost their lives after coming in contact with patients, but still, adhere to the Hippocratic Oath and work for the best interest of patients.
“Never bite the hands that feed you”, goes the saying. Therefore, there is a need to amend the Act in order to insert a provision penalising those who disrupt or commit violence against healthcare workers. Indirectly, the amendment would instil ethics into the citizens of our country. Amending the Act makes the law stricter and more stringent as required by the nation in the current situation of COVID19, especially in the public health context. India is in need of actionable and relevant legal provision for the control of the pandemic outbreak in public orientated manner. The author is of the opinion that violence and other such unfavourable incidents will be curbed with an amendment. This would also help safeguard the life, rights and property of the healthcare workers who can now serve the country without any fear that they will be attacked in the line of duty.
Promulgation of an Ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 in the light of the pandemic situation of COVID-19, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, available at https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1617327, last seen on 22/4/2020.  Ordinance to punish those attacking healthcare personnel comes into force, The Economic Times, available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com//news/politics-and-nation/ordinance-to-punish-those-attacking-healthcare-personnel-comes-into-force/articleshow/75317011.cmsutm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst, last seen on 23/4/2020.